Scottsdale in January is becoming for car collectors what Saratoga in August is for fans of horse racing: a fashionable "must do" event on the social calendars of the well-heeled.
From humble beginnings in the early 1970s, the winter auctions in and around Scottsdale, an affluent Phoenix suburb, have grown into celebrity-studded institutions.
The Barrett-Jackson Classic Car Auction will be held for the 34th time this week -- events run from Wednesday through next Sunday -- at the WestWorld resort. Some 4,000 bidders are expected to vie for nearly 1,000 old, rare and often valuable cars, many of them impressive American muscle machines of the 1960s and 70s. A year ago, sales totaled US$38.5 million.
The auction will be covered by the Speedvision cable channel, which will carry 24 hours of coverage starting Thursday. While this may sound about as exciting as televised events like the NFL draft, a surprising amount of drama can be generated when determined bidders go mano-a-mano with their checkbooks.
Those who follow the market see these trends developing in the collector market this year:
-- Interest in cars developed by Carroll Shelby, the race car driver turned manufacturer, remains strong, with a full dozen to be offered by Barrett-Jackson. Last year, a Ford Mustang Shelby GT 500 set a sales record for this type of car at US$280,000.
-- Early hot rods are doing well, like a 1938 yellow-and-black Lincoln to be sold by Barrett-Jackson.
-- Buyers are gravitating toward "resto rods," older car bodies with modern suspensions and engines underneath. One example is a creation by Boyd Coddington, perhaps the most famous builder of hot rods, called the "Whatthehaye" -- a play on the French marque Delahaye. The car has a Dodge Viper V-10 engine and modern chassis, but its coachwork suggests classic French cars predating World War II.
-- Several rare Corvettes will be offered, including a "split window" Sting Ray -- its two small rear windows were offered only in 1963 -- owned by the actor Nicolas Cage. A one-of-a-kind 1958 Corvette with a fold-up hardtop, the "Hide Away Hardtop," was designed by Francis Scott of General Motors.
-- A 1970 Plymouth Hemi Cuda, one of the first ones made, will go on the block. Hemi Cuda prices have soared recently, and this car has an unusual provenance: it was used for press events and advertising.
Celebrity cars are a staple. Barrett-Jackson will offer a 1937 Ford Cabriolet used in the filming of The Aviator, in which Leonardo diCaprio plays Howard Hughes.
One of Hughes' own cars will be shown, but it will not go on sale until Barrett-Jackson's Palm Beach auction in March. Hughes had his 1953 blue-and-sea-foam Buick Roadmaster redone with aircraft electronics and enhanced air-conditioning; the powerful bacterial and dust filter was specified by the germ-averse billionaire.
A rival auction company, Russo & Steele Collector Cars, will hold what it calls a more intimate "boutique" auction with 200 cars, including a catered buffet for buyers. Its pinup model this year is the Simca Special, a wild rocket ship of a car done by Virgil Exner Jr, son of the renowned Chrysler designer, for his master's thesis at Notre Dame.